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Elephants at City Hall

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Kurt Barling | 14:41 UK time, Friday, 19 March 2010

As we all know there has been a series of unlinked dramatic fires across the capital since last July. The fire in Southwark at Lakanal House claimed the lives of three adults and three children.

The three official inquiries - Police, Health & Safety Executive and Fire Brigade - into how that fire started are still ongoing. The inquest into the deaths of the victims was told in December that it would take until this summer to conclude their investigations. Serious questions have been asked by local MP and Deputy PM, Harriet Harman, as to why they need take so long.

Meanwhile, a number of dramatic fires have raised fresh questions about the risks associated with buildings constructed with timber-frame techniques.

So now officials with responsibility for fire safety have two major areas to be concerned about.

Lakanal House fireFirstly, fires in high rise, multiple-occupancy buildings like Lakanal House, mostly taken to mean blocks over five storeys.

Secondly, the safety of timber-framed buildings during the construction phase in densely populated areas: when these catch light there is virtually no stopping a total loss.

Actually BBC London reported at the back end of last year about a timber-framed building that was fully occupied which was a total loss as a result of an inferno. So cavity fires in fully-occupied blocks should clearly not be off the agenda either.

Anyway, the London Assembly very wisely decided these fires and their causes would be a legitimate target of their scrutiny powers. So this week they convened a panel of experts to bring Assembly members up to speed.

Well, at least that is what it set out to do.

But the first thing the scrutiny panel decided was that there should be no mention of the fire that triggered all this concern. Despite the fact that six people died, and millions of pounds of taxpayers' money has been spent on re-housing those who lived in the devastated block.

The elephant in the room would have to be ignored because of the pending inquest.

Let's also not forget large amounts of public money has been spent on legal fees to defend Southwark Council's approach to dealing with fire safety in the borough, and millions are currently being spent on addressing fire risk issues raised by the London Fire Brigade as it slapped an unprecedented three enforcement notices on Southwark council high-rise blocks.

The Fire Commissioner, Ron Dobson, in a measured observation, told Assembly Members that there was a lack of clarity amongst some landlords about just who is responsible for fire safety.

He clearly chose to be diplomatic.

In September BBC London found many public landlords had a woefully inadequate grasp of their responsibilities in our investigations following the fire at Lakanal House. The LFB agreed.

Lambeth Council had carried out virtually no Fire Risk Assessments on its tall blocks. The Council reported earlier this week that so far they estimate the catch-up costs on fire safety had risen to £1.65m. I distinctly remember Lambeth lambasting BBC London for saying they were fire safety stragglers.

In tip-toeing around the sensitivities of local authorities, not a single local authority was named and shamed in the Assembly session. You wondered just who is enforcing the fire safety regime established under the Regulatory Reform Order in 2005.

Of course in reality it is the London Fire Brigade, but it still escapes me why they won't be more forthright in saying a number of public landlords and private landlords simply aren't up to scratch, five years after this new regime was introduced, in making sure they are providing robust Fire Risk Assessments which could be subjected to scrutiny.

Then that elephant re-entered the room as Assembly Members were told that in private dwellings, Fire Risk Assessments were often not kept up to date after alterations were made. Crikey! What happened to all those public authority dwellings that have been inspected and criticised since July? It appears there is an institutional reluctance to point fingers at acknowledged poor practice.

Six months after we compiled a list of all the blocks over five storeys owned by local authorities, the London Fire Authority seems to be suggesting they still don't have the information themselves. Why on earth not with their army of administrators?

At one point Rita Dexter of the Fire Authority told Assembly Members that London has a history of decreasing deaths from fire and that high rise dwellers are no more at risk from fire than anyone else. Whilst the historical figures may be true, total loss of buildings is equally important - and in any case that's little consolation to the families of those who died at Lakanal House.

Anyhow, as we don't know the outcome of those Lakanal House reports yet, how does the fire service know there is no greater risk to high rise dwellers?

The Assembly panel then discussed the implications of a growing trend to use timber frame construction techniques in the capital. All were agreed that the most vulnerable point in the life of a timber-framed building was the construction phase.

Fires in Camberwell, Peckham and Colindale all highlighted this. But no-one could be sure if there was any greater risk to life and property in these buildings once they were inhabited. Rob Dobson again asserted that uncontrolled alterations can raise the fire risk by compromising compartmentalisation.

The evidence from the Fire Brigade in Croydon, in the wake of the fire we investigated, suggests that despite the fact that that fire was started by a wayward teenager with matches, controlled alterations - if not properly regulated - can also compromise fire safety.

The assembled panel of experts seemed remarkably laid-back about a series of fires which have put hundreds of Londoners out of their homes, without being able to present evidence suggesting there was an obvious way of stopping such fires happening elsewhere.

The harsh reality is that until there is a robust system for checking that landlords, both private and public, have a consistent approach to assessing fire risks in their properties, Londoners in these high rise blocks cannot be sure how safe they are.

If the London Assembly wants to speed this process up, they could suggest that all public landlords publish their Fire Risk Assessments online so that tenants and residents can see for themselves how seriously their landlords take the risk of fire. At the same time each local authority could make it clear who in their town hall is the responsible person for fire safety in council-owned property.

Until the formal inquest resumes and the families get answers to why their loved ones died at Lakanal House, that elephant is going to stick around and create a big nuisance.

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